In Eric Rohmer’s 1981 film, Marie Rivière plays Anne, a young woman who gets dumped by her airline pilot lover on the same day that she is pursued by her unwanted, jealous boyfriend. In her first major feature-film role for the French auteur, Rivière explores the complexity of facing rejection and escaping desire.
“It’s impossible to think about nothing” is not only the proverb that introduces The Aviator’s Wife—the first of Rohmer’s “Comedies and Proverbs”—but it also serves as the key to Rivière’s character: Anne thinks all the time. Not only when she’s expressing herself through words and gestures but also when she might seem most passive—whilst listening. Rohmer shoots her final scene so that we can observe Rivière taking in all of her boyfriend’s mistaken assumptions about her sentimental life.
Rivière gives us a mischievous master class on how dialogue works: this isn’t two people talking but one talking while the other listens and then responds. In this 26-minute tour-de-force, she mostly lies in a bed in her tiny Parisian apartment, listening to François (Philippe Marlaud) and repeatedly asking him to leave only to allow him to stay longer each time.
In her listening, Rivière draws on a whole set of tricks that serve both to distract her fellow actor and to prompt his reactions. These are small actions such as rolling her eyes, endlessly rearranging a pillow, touching her hair, pushing him away and embracing him, scratching his knee in a playful manner, and, finally, a failed attempt at crying that lets her understand her emotional state and find an end to their discussion.
Rivière’s sudden and elusive look up to the sky, both avoiding and seducing her partner, would become a film gesture of hers as signature as Falconetti’s tears, or any of Bette Davis’s glares. “Thought is in the eyes,” Nicholas Ray said—and, Rohmer through Rivière might add, in the eyes of the listener.